Muscles sore after a tough workout? Put the ibuprofen down and pick up some saffron instead. A new study has found that the spice might be more effective at easing exercise-induced muscle pain and weakness than over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.

For the study, Iranian researchers recruited 39 men near the age of 18 who were not regular exercisers. Twelve men received daily capsules containing 300 milligrams of powdered saffron for a week before and three days after a strenuous exercise session. Another 12 men took indomethacin, a nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug three times a day throughout the study period. And 15 men acted as controls and received placebo pills.

All of the men in the group performed the same exercise routine — four sets of 20 repetitions on a leg-press machine pressing a weight equal to 80 percent of maximum muscle capacity. The men used only their right legs so that soreness and swelling could be analyzed more effectively.

How did the men fare? Researchers found that the men who took the saffron supplements experienced less soreness and swelling and felt more muscle strength in the days following the exercise than the men who took either the NSAID or the placebo. The men who took the saffron reported no pain three days after the exercise session, while the NSAID group reported minor pain at 24 hours that dissipated after 72 hours. The men who took the placebo reported severe muscle pain, peaking at 48 hours, for three days following the exercise.

The men in the saffron and NSAID groups experienced minimal thigh swelling after the exercise while the men in the placebo group had significant swelling within 24 hours. Finally, the muscle strength for the placebo group actually decreased by 20 percent in the days after the exercise (due to soreness) and remained unchanged for the NSAID group. But the men who took the saffron saw muscle strength increase by 64 percent. Impressive!

Saffron is a popular spice that comes from the flower Crocus sativus. Previous studies have associated the cartenoids found in saffron, namely crocin and crocetin, with cancer and heart disease prevention. With this new study, saffron can add anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties to its resume.

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